Thursday, March 25, 2010

The long ride to Flores.

Before we left for Guatemala, I had booked a tour to Tikal for the four of us through a local company called Turansa. 

Last night, someone from Turansa stopped by the hotel and dropped off our vouchers and tour itinerary for us.

According to the schedule, a driver would be by our hotel to pick us up at 7:30am. So, to make sure we got up in time, we set our alarms for 6:30am.

Our destination for today…..a town called Isla de Flores or simply Flores which is the launch point to Tikal.  Our bus ride would be about 9 hours long.  I was hoping it would give us a chance to catch up on some much needed sleep and also the opportunity to see some Guatemalan countryside.

As its name indicates, Flores is an island but it’s an island contained within a very large lake. Our bus ride would take us to the station in Santa Elena which is on the mainland. From there, we would go by a shuttle van over to the island of Flores.....that was the plan :-)

Sometime before sunrise, a rooster crowing in the distance woke me up….a reminder that I’m not sleeping in my bed in Silver Spring, MD!

I rolled over and caught a bit more sleep before the alarm went off. We both took our time getting out of bed, freshening up and doing some last minute packing. As I waited for my brother to finish up, I headed up to the rooftop of the hotel to catch an early morning view of the town including a glimpse of La Merced.

It took us a while to get checked out and before we finished up, the driver had appeared at the front door. He patiently waited while we paid the bill and handed our luggage over to the receptionist - the hotel kindly agreed to store our luggage for us as we would be back in two days.

We piled into the van for the drive to the bus station in Guatemala City. The driver barreled his way down the narrow cobblestone streets like a pro – I’m sure he’d driven the streets many times before. As we approached Guatemala City, we were greeted by morning rush hour. Despite that, the driver made good time – I think his foot was glued to the accelerator the entire time.

Watch this video to go on a two minute van ride down the cobblestone streets of Antigua.   It may be early morning but we could still chat and have a good giggle or two :-)

We arrived at the bus station, located in what we described as the barrio of Guatemala City…..not exactly the swanky part of town, at about 8:30am.

The bus station in Guatemala City

City street in the early morning.

Another street view.
Patiently waiting for assistance at the ticket counter.

We handed our tour vouchers over to the woman behind the counter, fully expecting her to understand what they were all about and when she didn’t, we had some explaining to do. Thanks to my brother’s command of Spanish (way, way, way better than mine) and some patience on our part, we soon got everything straightened out.

The waiting area at the bus station. 

We had about an hour and a half to kill so we headed out of the bus station in search of breakfast. This is not the touristy part of town so restaurants were not easily spotted. First stop, a street vendor selling bread. Hey, when you’re hard up….bread and water for brekkie will do just fine. :-) The vendor was a young boy and an even younger child. All they had was several pieces of bread – one that was just sweet dough and another that was effectively a roll that was sliced into half and filled with a piece of fried egg. The halves of bread were spread with a bit of the boys for our bread, I handed the younger one two of the Tootsie Roll pops I had brought along. He accepted them with ease - I hope he enjoys them as much as I enjoyed my egg sandwich.

I went all the way to Guatemala only to find someone
wearing a Georgetown University tee shirt :-)

A few feet away from the bread boys was another vendor selling snack aka *junk* foods. We decided to stock up for the bus ride so I walked away with two bags of chicharrones (fried pork rinds) which are a classic Latin American snack food. For less than 30 US cents, I got two small bags.

Next, we crossed the street to the butcher shop. No, we weren’t planning on buying any raw meat but there was a tiny Guatemalan woman at the front of the store selling fruits and veggies. She was selling slices of watermelon for GTQ1. I couldn’t resist buying a slice because the watermelon looked perfectly ripe and juicy. We saw lots of the fruit as we were wandering through the Mercado yesterday and we we were all drooling over how tasty it looked. After eating my share of the today’s slice of watermelon, I am determined that we will buy a whole one, which is smaller in size than a basketball, before we leave this country. It’s just too good to pass up!

Around the street corner, we happened upon a kitchen where three women were making fresh corn tortillas.

Watch the ladies in action thanks to Soon's video.  Believe, since I had opportunity to try making tortillas a few days later, they make it look easier than it really is.

What a cutie patootie!
It’s obvious they’ve done this countless times before because they whipped out the uniformly shaped rounds with ease. The smell of the cooking masa was intoxicating. Five tortillas for GTQ1. The Ang Bros and I whipped out GTQ2 and got a small bag of hot, just made tortillas. As I waited for my bag of tortillas, I caught sight of a toddler – sitting in a milk crate. There is no such thing as a babysitter for working class mothers here so it’s not uncommon to see children hanging out with their parents as they work. This little boy broke into a smile each time I waved. I showed his mother the photos on my camera and she then grabbed the other women to come have a look. It’s amazing the reaction that a simple image on a camera can elicit.

As we walked away, I immediately sunk my teeth into one of the piping hot tortillas. A little thicker than a Mexican tortilla, this one was full of corn flavor not like the bland tortillas that I buy in the stores at home.  All I needed was some Guatemalan stewed pork and beans to complete the meal…..that would have to be another time. For now, I was happy to just munch on the plain tortilla.

Across the street and a short walk down from the bus station was a restaurant. We decided to go in and have a cup of coffee.

Next thing you know, we have a menu in hand and are ordering breakfast – two plates of huevos rancheras which is the typical Guatemalan breakfast. The clock on the wall said it was 9:30am so we didn’t have much time to eat – we figured we would have to gulp and run. Luckily, it took only a few minutes for our plates to show up – two fried eggs topped smothered with picante sauce, a dollop of refried beans, some slices of fried plantain and some cheese and cream. I dove into the eggs - a spoonful of egg, sauce and refried bean made for the perfect bite. We devoured the food in due time, paid our bill and arrived back at the bus station just in time to board the bus.

We passed quickly through what appeared to be an obligatory security check i.e., they rifled through Valiant’s empy backpack and never even opened my stuffed one. On to the bus and although we had assigned seating, I was not surprised to see someone already sitting in one of our seats. We decided to just plop ourselves down in a row of empty seats. The bus pulled out of the station at 10:06am. It would be an 8 hour ride to our destination – the bus station at St. Elena which is near the town of Flores where we would be spending then night. We settled in for the long ride. Flashback to Peru where they played a Grade D American movie on TV screens suspended over the seats. Ditto here. The first ½ hour was in English and then it got switched over to Spanish – I’m guessing it took that long for whoever was manning the DVD player to figure out how to switch the language. :-)

We’re heading north to Tikal…..across what looks to be a fairly mountainous region. I know it’s dry season but as we drove through the countryside, I was still surprised by just how parched the landscape is.

At times, we saw cacti growing. I don’t know about the rest of Guatemala but the land we passed seemed so rocky and arid, I wondered how anyone could grow anything on it. Every now and again, you would see a small crop of corn or maybe it was sugar cane. Coconut, mango and papaya trees often dotted yards but there no were no *orchards* per se. As my brother commented, we didn’t even see any farm animals grazing as there are no green fields for them to graze on.

About 1 o’clock, we pulled into a roadside restaurant so we could stretch our legs and grab a quick bite to eat. The blazing heat and humidity was stifling as we got off the bus. I was hoping the restaurant would be air-conditioned but the sight of whirling ceiling fans and open windows quickly dispelled that hope. Oh well. We had 1/2 hour to make our way through a cafeteria style line, get our food and eat. The guys opted for a full lunch. All I wanted was something cold so I opted for an ice cream bar. Hey, I know it’s not a proper lunch but it was just what I needed to cool me down.  Food eaten and a quick trip to the bathroom and it was back on the bus.

The landscape was pretty much “same old, same old” by now so I passed the time catching up on my blog postings as my brother did some office paperwork. Yeah, he brought office work along…..go figure.

Around mid-afternoon, we pulled into the town of Rio Dulce which sits alongside the lake of the same name. For a split second, we all thought we had arrived into Flores because of the water but I knew it was too early in the day. According to the itinerary, we wouldn’t make it to Santa Elena until 6:30pm.

The bus pulled over to the side of the road and after a few minutes, a young girl boarded. In her arms she was carrying a large plastic bowl filled with bags of sliced, green (unripe) mango. Here, the slices of fruit are dipped into chili salt before being eaten. For GTQ5, I bought a small bag which my brother and I shared though we declined the chili salt to go with the slices. Tart and hard to the bite, each slice made my face pucker but this is a common way that Malaysians eat the fruit so it brought back some fond memories of my childhood days back in Malaysia.

With our hopes dashed that we had actually arrived into Santa Elena. the bus continued onwards. By now, the landscape outside the window was becoming greener…..fields dominated.

As the sun set over the horizon, we had still not arrived into Flores. The time on my cellphone read sometime past 6pm.

It was about 7:30p, when the bus finally came to a stop but it just stopped on the roadside. We asked one of our fellow passengers where we had arrived to and he responded “Flores”. Though our itinerary said we would be deposited at the bus station in Santa Elena, we all decided to get off the bus anyway. Didn’t seem to make sense to any of us to double back to the bus station and then get into a shuttle van just to get back to this point. As we disembarked the bus, there were taxi drivers galore waiting for us…..all offering rides of course. Our fellow passenger asked us where were staying and we replied “Hotel Peten”. He replied that he knew where the place was – just three blocks this way and then three blocks that away……at least that’s what I heard as I imagined us trying to find this place in the Guatemalan night. By now, we were all tired so when one taxi driver offered to take us to our hotel for GTQ5 each, we decided to take him up on the offer…..without bargaining…..not worth what would amount to a few cents.

We clamored into the taxi and took off into the narrow streets of Flores. It was barely a 5 minute ride and we had arrived at the hotel.

With my brother translating, we handed our hotel voucher over to the receptionist who had already been expecting our arrival. In no time we had our keys and headed up to our rooms…..spartan but comfy. The bonus was the view of the lake. We couldn’t see much of it in the dark so enjoying lake views would have to wait til tomorrow.

Okay….so, sometimes I do fall for cheesy things. Our chamber maid, Izabel Baltazar (that’s what it said on the card on the bedside table) had folded our bath and face towels into animal shapes – the bath towel into what we guessed was an armadillo and the face towel into a duck. At least that’s what the shapes looked like to us cause on second thought, we didn’t think they have either animal species in Guatemala :-)

A few minutes to rest up and we met the Ang Bros in the lobby. By now, we were ready to eat. Opting out of eating in the hotel restaurant, we found a bar and grill type place alongside the lake. There were enough people sitting at the tables to draw us in.

It was a balmy night but there was a slight breeze blowing off the lake that made it very comfortable to be sitting outside.

We were seated on a deck area that overhung the lake. Leaning over, we could see small fish and even a pair of turtles swimming about. That night we dined on grilled meats (topped with a very tasty byt garlicky chimmichurri sauce, rice, veggies and fruit juices. Though we were hungry, we took our time to enjoy our time to enjoy the meal. There was no need to rush.

After dinner, we headed to an ice cream shop that my brother had spotted on the way to the restaurant. Named Sarita, we’ve figured out that it’s a chain store – sort of like Baskin and Robbins though with not as many flavor offerings. At GTQ7 for a single scoop, it’s a relative bargain. As usual, the challenge was trying to decide what flavor to choose. With the help of a fellow tourist from Puerto Rico, we were finally able to match colored tubs of ice cream to flavors – purple was uva (grape), translucent white was coco (coconut), light brown was café (coffee), orange was mango, green was limon verde (green lemon). Both my brother and I opted for the same thing – 1 scoop of coconut. The Ang Bros decided to go for the soda and ice cream offerings – 7Up and lime for Soon, grape sode and grape ice cream for his brother. We all agreed that the ice cream, which was rich and creamy tasting, was the perfect ending to dinner and that we would have to come back to Sarita to taste the other offerings on the menus. We are truly a greedy foursome :-)
We ate our ice creams as we strolled back towards the hotel which was just a few doors down. With our bellies full and a long travel day behind us, we were ready to chill. We retired to our rooms and prepared for bed which meant taking a shower and doing some laundry. Tomorrow would be another early rise as the shuttle van would be by our hotel at 7am to take us to Tika. I think it was about 10pm when my head hit the pillow. I was out like a light.